Brexit: a golden dawn or the start of a nightmare

Almost half of Britain and markets around the world react with shock as referendum sets country on a path pout of the European Union.
A jubilant Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party and a prime mover in the campaign to leave the European Union, celebrates at a referendum party at Millbank Tower in central London on June 24, 2016. Geoff Caddick / AFP
A jubilant Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party and a prime mover in the campaign to leave the European Union, celebrates at a referendum party at Millbank Tower in central London on June 24, 2016. Geoff Caddick / AFP

LONDON // After two days of ominous thunder storms, one half of the British people woke on Friday morning to bright sunshine and the golden dawn of an independence day.

For the rest, who had gone to bed on Thursday night lulled by exit polls that suggested the great British electorate would resist a toxic campaign blaming immigrants for every ill, the news that Britain had indeed voted to leave the European Union was nothing short of a waking nightmare.

In a quixotic bid to regain an ill-defined dream of sovereignty and throw off the perceived regulatory shackles imposed by faceless Eurocrats, 17.4 million voters chose to abandon an economic and political alliance that is all anyone in the UK under the age of 43 has ever known.

Nigel Farage, the leader of the right-wing UK Independence Party (Ukip) who has been the most prominent voice in the Leave campaign, told jubilant supporters the result was a victory “for real people, for ordinary people, for decent people”.

Mr Farage, a millionaire former commodities broker who has successfully rebranded himself as a man of the people, said Britain should declare June 24 as its own Independence Day. Presumably forgetting the murder just eight days earlier of British MP Jo Cox, he hailed a revolution that had been achieved “without a single bullet being fired”.

On the contrary, tweeted Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, leaving the EU was “a very sad decision that will do huge damage to Britain’s prosperity and Europe’s stability”.

“God help our country,” tweeted Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, a sentiment shared by large numbers of younger voters. The hashtags “NotInMyName” and “WhatHaveWeDone” appeared on Twitter, with many expressing their shame at the decision. “Don’t think I have ever felt more depressed about the future of this country than this morning,” tweeted one. Another pointed out “the irony that everyone who voted remain is now looking for ways to leave Britain”.

The wider world also reacted with shock. British voters, declared the Los Angeles Times in an op-ed that spoke for many bemused onlookers, had “wilfully walked off a cliff”. Brexit was “an isolationist catastrophe [and] a defeat for Britain, Europe and the global economy”.

After months of bitter campaigning, characterised by wild claims and anti-migrant rhetoric by the Leave camp, it was all over before the first EU-standardised boiled egg had been cracked open on a British breakfast table. At 4.40am on Friday veteran BBC broadcaster David Dimbleby told surviving viewers of the BBC’s all-night referendum marathon that it was now statistically impossible for the Remain camp to win.

During the all-night coverage, “David Dimbleby” briefly supplanted “Kim Kardashian” as the top Google search in the UK.

In the end, 52 per cent of 33 million voters in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar had opted to turn their back on over 40 years of British engagement with the great European project. With 48 per cent backing continued membership, however, the UK is now a clearly and bitterly divided country, and one now facing years of economic and political uncertainty.

As had been predicted, the London stock market fell sharply and, as capital sought safe havens in shelters ranging from gold to Swiss francs, the pound fell more than 10 per cent to under US$1.33, its weakest since the 1980s.

Before most people had got to work, prime minister David Cameron, who led the campaign for Britain to remain in the EU, had resigned from his job.

“The will of the British people is an instruction that must be delivered,” he said, his voice breaking towards the end of a statement delivered outside 10 Downing Street shortly before 8.30am.

It was, he said, only right that a new prime minister should begin the exit negotiations with Europe and make the decision when to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, the as yet untested mechanism for a state’s withdrawal from the EU. He would stay on for three months and hoped to see his successor in the post before the Conservative party conference in October.

In the wings lurk Boris Johnson, an MP and former mayor of London, and Michael Gove, a former Times columnist-turned-MP who currently serves as Mr Cameron’s justice secretary. Both have been accused of backing the Leave campaign solely in the hope of furthering their own careers, and both will now doubtless make their bid for the leadership.

On Friday morning Mr Johnson, who had reversed his earlier support for the EU to join the Brexit camp, was heckled as he left his London home by protesters, many shouting “Shame on you”.

Outside Downing Street, meanwhile, Mr Cameron said he would do “everything I can as prime minister to steady the ship over the coming weeks and months but I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination”.

Mr Cameron has only himself to blame. In effect, British voters have just taken part in an elaborate internal leadership contest for the Conservative party. The referendum was promised by Mr Cameron in 2013 to appease backbench MPs who feared the impact of Mr Farage’s right-wing party and its divisive rhetoric about immigration and sovereignty.

To a large extent, the motive for the referendum has evaporated – Mr Farage failed to win a seat in the House of Commons and today Ukip has just one MP, a disaffected Tory who switched camps. Ironically, the party does have 24 Members of the European Parliament, including Mr Farage, all of whom will now lose their jobs in Brussels.

Mr Cameron did his best to put a brave face on the outcome. While Britain was “not perfect”, he said, “I do believe we can be a model for the multi-racial, multi-faith democracy, that people can come and make a contribution and rise to the very highest that their talent allows.”

That was an optimistic prognosis in the wake of battle won by a campaign widely condemned as blatantly racist and, in the words of the British historian Simon Schama, “about the hatred of immigrants”.

Just a week before the vote a Ukip campaign poster featuring a photograph of Syrian and Afghan refugees crossing from Croatia into Slovenia had been condemned as “anti-human”, “a blatant attempt to incite racial hatred” and “scaremongering in its most extreme and vile form”.

The referendum campaign has seen the UK sharply divided between a disgruntled white working class willing to blame all its woes on migrants and the EU, and a university-educated metropolitan “elite”. The impact of such divisive populist politics was brought home shockingly just over a week ago, when Jo Cox, a British Labour politician who had campaigned on behalf of Syrian refugees, was stabbed and shot to death in her Yorkshire constituency. In court, when asked his name the man accused of her murder said only, “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

Two days ago, when crowds gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square in memory of Cox, a mother of two young children and a former head of policy and humanitarian campaigning for the charity Oxfam, a plane trailing a “Leave” banner flew repeatedly overhead.

The result of the vote is running like a shockwave through Europe, where there are signs that right-wing parties are already moving to capitalise on Brexit amid fears that the entire European edifice may crumble.

In a statement, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said it was “not a moment for hysterical reactions”, but he was “fully aware of how serious, or even dramatic, this moment is politically”. There was, he added, “no way of predicting all the political consequences of this event, especially for the UK”.

In France, which next year goes to the polls in a presidential election, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen declared a “victory for freedom” and called for a “Frexit”. It was, she tweeted, “now time to bring democracy to our own country”. Likewise, the far-right Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders, who has condemned what he calls the “Islamisation of the Netherlands” and called for the Quran to be banned, demanded a referendum for the Dutch.

What will happen next is anyone’s guess. For a start, Europe will presumably have to find a stand-in for Britain’s planned presidency of the Council of the EU next year. Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, has called for a “speedy and clear exit negotiation”. But although Mr Cameron plans to get things rolling with a visit to the European Council next week the negotiations that will end with Britons having to surrender their EU passports could take upwards of two years.

Germany and France, keen to dissuade other nations from following suit, are unlikely to make things easy for Britain or for Mr Cameron’s successor.

Many things are now uncertain, including the status of the tens of thousands of Britons living abroad in Europe, and that of the Europeans living in Britain. Certainly, many of those who happily voted for a Brexit will find themselves less amused by the long non-EU airport queues at holiday destinations, while many Britons’ holidays in Europe this summer will be rendered more expensive by the weaker pound.

The “leavers” may also feel differently if, as predicted by many experts, London ceases to be the financial capital of Europe, inflation soars, mortgage interest rates rise and property prices collapse. As for freeing themselves from EU bureaucracy, any firms still hoping to sell their goods in Europe will continue to have to comply with EU regulations.

Brexit could also trigger further disintegration of the UK. Scotland voted 65.59 per cent to 33.41% to remain in Europe, raising the prospect of a second independence referendum north of the border.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, said on Friday it was “democratically unacceptable” for Scotland to be dragged out of the EU against its will and that preparations would now begin for another independence vote.

J K Rowling, the Harry Potter author who lives in Edinburgh and opposed independence from England in the 2014 Scottish referendum, tweeted to her 7.5 million followers: “Cameron’s legacy will be breaking up two unions [and] neither needed to happen.”

With Northern Ireland, part of the UK, also voting to remain in the EU, republican party Sinn Fein has been quick to point out that the vote has revitalised the case for a united Ireland; the Republic of Ireland has been a member of the EU since 1973.

At 72 per cent, the turnout for the Brexit referendum was almost as high as that for the first post-war general election in 1945, the year the idea of European integration was conceived in an attempt to counter the toxic nationalism that had twice torn apart the continent. All told, world wars one and two cost the lives of more than a billion people, 1.5 million of them from Britain or its then colonies.

In a speech in September 1946, Winston Churchill, Britain’s charismatic wartime leader, spoke of the “tragedy” that had engulfed Europe, sparked by “frightful nationalistic quarrels”. The solution, he said, was to build “a kind of United States of Europe”.

That process began in earnest in 1957 when six nations, including France and West Germany, signed the Treaty of Rome to create the European Economic Community. Other countries followed suit, including Britain in 1973. Membership, said Edward Heath, the British prime minister who led his country into Europe, would “enable us to be more efficient and more competitive in gaining more markets not only in Europe but in the rest of the world”, while in their everyday lives Britons would find there would be “a great cross-fertilisation of knowledge and information, not only in business but in every other sphere”.

But the British electorate has always been indifferent, if not downright hostile, to the European Union. The first Euro MPs were elected in 1979 and even then, with a turnout of just 32.2 per cent of the electorate – the poorest showing of the nine countries that took part – the apathy of the average British voter was obvious. In the seven EU-wide elections that have followed, the highest turnout in the UK was 38.52, recorded in 2004, and in 1999 participation fell to a dismal 24 per cent.

The European Union assumed its current form with the Maastricht Treaty, signed in 1992, which in 2002 led to the creation of European citizenship and the euro currency, adopted by 12 of the member states. Britain baulked on both occasions, parliamentary rebels urging an opt-out of the Maastricht chapter protecting workers’ rights, and later refusing to abandon the pound.

In 2012, almost seven decades after Churchill’s speech urging European unity in the name of peace, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union for its contribution to “the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”. To what extent Britain will continue to uphold such ideals now remains to be seen.

Published: June 24, 2016 04:00 AM


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